the beat of digital culture
home | about us | feedback

daily relay

the net



search mindjack

Mindjack Release
join to receive announcements of new issues



January 28, 2002 | Recently there has been talk of networks and warfare.  It may come as a surprise to some that the US has been actively researching network-centric warfare since the 1990s.  One key component of their future vision is network-enabled infantry.  Wearable computers are in use right now, providing portable technical manuals for repair crews (see Wearable computers hit the front lines).  The Land Warrior project takes wearable computing to its logical conclusion, linking together components such as a radio system, a rifle-mounted video camera and thermal sight, and GPS (enhanced by a dead-reckoning module that tracks the soldier's movement, increasing robustness and accuracy - see Accelerated Insertion).  Advances in technology since 1996 have made the prototype lighter, accelerating the feasibility of the project, but there is more to this than meets the eye.

There's a corollary to William Gibson's line "The street finds its own use for technology."  So can the military.

Significant cost reductions have been made by employing COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) hardware instead of the slower cycle of designing and testing custom hardware.  In addition to leveraging the efficiencies of mass production during the prototype stage, the Army benefits from the faster design cycle in the private sector.  Increases in computing power and weight reduction have accelerated a program which had recently been ailing.  The earlier version of the suit got a failing grade from the GAO (General Accounting Office) in 1999.  Currently plans are to start delivery of 34,000 production units in 2003, with a blistering design cycle pace anticipating an enhanced prototype every year.  (There is some disagreement between sources on these figures.)  The acceleration in productivity delivered by employing COTS is perhaps analogous to software authors leveraging open source rather than reinventing the wheel.  A system once estimated to cost $35K is now expected to be only $15K in production.  Furthermore, the system is modular, allowing for upgrades as technology advances.

The helmet HUD (heads-up display) allows maps to be displayed with relative positions of squadmates, or three-dimensional layouts to be superimposed in their field of vision.  In conjuction with the rifle-mounted camera, the solider will be able to take shots while making better use of cover.  The final version will allow the soldier to spot a target and call in indirect fire.

Wearable computing enthusiasts might take a cue from some clever engineering.  The main computer is packed within silicon gel which does double duty as both a shock absorber and a coolant (see LandWarrior).  Geeks will be disappointed to learn that the computer runs a custom version of Windows 2000 on a Pentium III clocked at 500 MHz.  An 800 MB flash memory drive means one less component involving moving parts (see The Register).  The radio subsystem runs on WinCE.  In theory, costs could be further reduced by turning to open source alternatives such as embedded Linux.  If nothing else, it would put to rest any morbid "blue screen of death" jokes.

The weight of the computer equipment is a small fraction of the total.  For instance, the INTERCEPTOR body armor (see SOLDIERS ONLINE - WHAT'S NEW) clocks in around 16.4 pounds (7.5kg), nearing half the weight of conventional armor yet still capable of stopping 5.56mm rounds.  Using dual plates, the armor can withstand multiple 7.62mm hits.  For additional protection, they also picked up protective elbow and knee pads, perhaps taking inspiration from rollerblade enthusiasts.

The COTS approach may very well have saved the program, as it also allowed for much needed weight reduction in the system; maximizing portability and minimizing bulk in several subsystems was being driven by the needs of mobile computing.  Prior to the use of COTS hardware, the program was nearly cancelled in 1998 (see National Defense Magazine).  Battery technology is one area where the designers anticipate that strides will be made in the next few years. The timeliness of this is crucial, as the advanced batteries are still too heavy in the current prototype. High power density is critical to sustained mission operation.

The batteries for version 0.6 of the suit are lithium ion cells that weigh 2.4 pounds (1.1 kg) and last for 6-8 mission hours, backed up by a reserve nonrechargable battery for perhaps another 9-12 hours.  The physical configuration of the cells apparently adds 20% power density (see Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries from Saft) compared to cylindrical units.  Lighter and more powerful batteries are in the works, and will no doubt continue to benefit from advances in commercial battery technology for notebooks and cellphones.  Fuel cells are being investigated for future applications.  Power conservation modes may also be employed.

The current vision of the hardware will provide for two models: a soldier system and a leader system, the latter being distinguished by an additional radio, a flat panel screen, and keyboard (see DefenseLINK News: Army Tests Land Warrior for 21st Century Soldiers).  The soldier model has one radio, but the information transmitted may include digital feeds.  Soldiers can send video feeds to the leader.

The system employs a wireless LAN.  The connectivity is network-centric, apparently in broadcast mode at least within the squad, not peer-to-peer (see DefenseLINK News: Land Warrior Coming to a Grunt Near You).  USB support is provided, presumably to allow for the linkage of mission-specific modules.  Plug-and-play indeed.

Further on the horizon is the technology of the JEDI (Joint Expeditionary Digital Information) vest (see - Space - Army develops prototype for 'wired' soldier of tomorrow - April 19, 2000), allowing for satellite linkage and even larger scale networking.

Nor is the USA alone in exploring advanced technology for infantry.  The UK has a program called Crusader 21, and Australia has Land 125 (see National Defense Magazine), although their technological foci differ, in part due to differences in intended application.

These networking technologies point to a potentially radical reorganization in how infantry coordinates activity, exceeding at least temporarily the capacity to apply it effectively.  Networked combat may empower infantry to unprecedented levels by providing them with sufficient information to make better decisions, rather than suffering tactical information flows being overly constrained by hierarchy. Improved and readily available intelligence enhances situational awareness in combat. Current doctrine is shifting, exploring the possibility of more robust "internetted" command structure (see TRADOC Pam 525-5, Chapter 2).

They haven't applied all the lessons they could have from the Internet with regard to network robustness.  Take out a single node on the Internet, and traffic can be diverted down alternate routes.   Internet-style redundancy and robustness suggest a slightly more expensive approach of equipping all suits as potential leaders, allowing the squad to retain more of its effectiveness should the leader unit be disabled.  This would also maximize the capacity for individual soldiers to reconfigure their roles should the situation require it.

Despite the technological appeal inherent in such attempts at RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs), we must also bear in mind the human element in warfare and avoid technofetishist tunnel vision (see The Revolution in Military Affairs: Forword and Summary). We are a long way off from fully automated warfare in the style of the Terminator movies, and that is probably better than the inhuman alternative.

[As an exercise in Internet OSI (open source intelligence) gathering, all source information was obtained from the Internet with the assistance of conventional search engines. There was some disagreement between sources regarding some specifications, but this can be at least partially explained by the evolutionary nature of the project specifications.]


Jim Lai is currently a senior programmer. His first encounter with computers was around 1980. Since then he has developed many geekly talents and skills in his quest to be a modern day Renaissance man. Still not King. His physical presence is located in Toronto, Canada.

advertise here
email for info




home | about us | feedback